Exclusive: Don Diablo – Since the Age of 14

Access Anthem is thrilled to present a world exclusive interview featuring Don Diablo and the superstar’s journey in the world of electronic music. Together with Don, we are thrilled to unveil a side of him that no one has ever seen before – he goes above and beyond to share his story from day 1 of his music career at the age of 14 through today. Don has soared through the music realm, always surprising his avid listeners and fans with his innovative tracks, also on his own imprint Hexagon. In our exclusive feature, Don discusses a myriad of topics, both personal and regarding his career as a DJ compared to his career as a producer, to even a bit about his secret escape when he needs to relax. Access sat down with Don to talk more in depth about his journey and where he’s headed next – follow past the break to hear what the Dutchman shared with the world.

Would you say you were more of a DJ or a producer when you first started? How did you feel about the transition? 

I don’t know, I started off making music, so producing. I think I produced my first track at 14 or 15 years old. Only a few years later I thought about DJing, because a lot of people were asking for us to perform live somewhere. I was like, “Do I have to get a drummer, a keyboard player, a singer? I don’t know.” So that’s how I became a DJ, but it was never my intention to become a DJ.

Do you think it’s meant to be that you’re doing this; that you’re a DJ?

I always thought it wasn’t – I was trying to run away as fast and as hard as I could. Trying to destroy my career. I thought that I wanted to go into film – I really wanted to connect with people on a different, emotional level. I felt that film could connect on a musical and visual level and tell a story. I’ve always wanted to go into film school and start journalism and documentary and now i’m here. I don’t know what happened. I think now yes definitely. Once I started –  I thought it could go somewhere – maybe I’m not that bad. Maybe I could actually have a career in this. I think “Starlight” was the start of it. Before that it was all fun, but now I’m much more focused. i’m just trying to work accordingly to my plan, more organized.  People ask me how much time do you spend in the studio and to be honest, not as much as I used to but I work more organized and also because I have a goal when I’m in the studio. I don’t mess around anymore as much as I did before – that’s the difference.  Now that I’m a little bit more accepted, you have a bigger following, you have a bigger platform, people are generally more into what you do. So that gives you a bit more space and less of a headache.

Let’s go back to your childhood – How old were you when you started producing? Did your different skills that you took on and learned from journalism to film making and your passion for music, have you honed those skills – how have they affected you know and the work as Don Diablo? 

I was just making these short little films when I was 12 or 13, had my mom and dad acting in it. Went on road-trips with my friends, and my mom was a bloodsucking vampire.  I always felt like you had to bleed for your art.  When I started making music, it wasn’t as easy it is right now.  You just download a program for free and throw a couple beats left and right – then you send that out as your most recent demo.  You had to buy mixers and really know the technology.  To finish a song was an adventure. You just have to go with that flow and become less pressured with what you do. I remember I put out my first record album  when I  was 14, it was Martin Garrix’s “Eat Your Heart Out”.  I put a lot of effort into that at that time. I used to wake up early and bring more equipment in. My mom would be pissed and say, “What is going on now?” Then I started ghost producing for other people and started doing more and more different styles. Then you finally come to the conclusion – maybe someone should start paying me something. You kind of get lost in just making the music and business comes later. Literally, hundreds of thousands of Euros or dollars has slipped through my hands on many different occasions because I’m just too busy creating the next record.

I didn’t even know – I had a label “Middle of the Road” and it put out two records. The second record sold about a million copies, it’s called the “Exceedor” by Mason, in I think 2006. The first record sold around 89 copies, second record almost a million – Number 2 in the UK charts.

I’ve always been in it for the music, not for the money. It was a lot of money being made, just not by me, although I had all the rights. I’m just not the type to do the business side of it, I don’t like to extort people. Now I have other people take care of it. I think a lot of the music gets lost in translation of businesses.

That’s why I stopped making music. I went to school again. I already had about 60 records out but I decided to stop making music because the business sucked.  During my second year, I received a ring from a different label asking what I was doing and if I had a track. I sent them a record and it just blew up. This has been the cycle, I tried to get out of the business maybe four or five times. Something always happens; the harder you run away from it, the more it comes to you. It’s like that movie, “Office Space”.  Music has to come from the drive, to want to create, rather than to become popular. I was just always content working my job and doing music on the side. I used to play my songs to my mom, my girlfriend at the time. That was enough for me. The essence of writing music is writing it for yourself. I think a lot of people lose track of that concept.

Tell us more about Hexagon Radio – Why and how does it represent you?

I just have my own reasons behind everything. It’s the same with the music, it is what people want to make of it. Obviously the records like, “Artist Inside” is a song for my father, it’s not really hard to understand what that was about. The same with like, “Golden Years”, that one is about growing up and looking back to when you were young. Everything you do now seems very important, but it’s not when you go back to when you were young and everything was carefree; when nothing was a matter of life or death. The track, “Give It All”, which came straight after my father’s death, is that you have nothing to lose. I didn’t want to be the richest man in the cemetery, I just wanted to leave something behind that inspires people, even if it’s one person. From there I gradually got back to the message-free type of music. I think music has to come from within – it wouldn’t be right to have such an impactful event in my life and not do anything with it.  I mean if you don’t want to hear the message, just listen to the beats as well. But I do feel that I made a more emotional connection with my fans now. It’s very genuine. Going back to Hexagon, the intention is that I wanted to create my own artwork, I want people to have something to wear on their chest or back that represents something bigger than just music. It’s the music videos, the art, and the music itself, the philosophy, the way you deal with people. The end of the day, you have to look at it as a connection of cool beats. Again, it’s just what people want to make of it. But for me, it doesn’t stop with the music. A lot of the editing and content, I do myself in like my hotel room. For me, that’s fun, I’m making clothes, It’s trying to be as much ‘you’ as you can be.

Where do you see yourself in five to ten years?  

I don’t know, I’ve never looked that far ahead. I think when I was around 12 or a little bit younger, I went to the hospital with my mother and the doctor told me that, because of my severe heart and lung problems, I wouldn’t be old and to prepare myself and to make the most of it. So I was thinking of how I can make the day count.  So I said to my mom that I’m never going to smoke or drink, I’m just going to try to live as healthy as I can, take care of myself, and hopefully live another day. That’s why, when I work seven days a week-18 hours a day, people ask me why I’m directing videos, making art, making music. What I have inside of me now, I want to get out before I go to the ground. That’s kind of the idea for me. So from five to ten years from now, hopefully I have a ‘little’ Diablo, that would be amazing. I never wanted to be a father, until I lost my own father. You kind of realize nothing is really important, none of the fame or money matters, nothing really matters except your health. I think an important thing you can do in life is to create life. That’s why I started taking things more lightly, I used to be very serious. That’s why I made that video, “Back to Life”, and the whole concept I had last year of ‘Time’. “Back to Life”, “Anytime”, and “Generations”, those tracks were me exploring the concept of ‘Time’. “Back In Time” was literally going back in time for two years, putting all of those videos we took over two years into three minutes. “Back To Life” was the ‘end’ of time, what happens to you at the end of your life. I thought that would be cool, so I had a mask (that costed half of the video budget) done by a supercool, special effect supervisor who did like “Walking Dead”.

It happened in LA, I was doing a free Don Diablo show at the end of last year. We had a venue with a lot of people and to think that an old man displayed the stage.

I think that’s why I started journalism. I think it’s cool to play with reality. People will believe what they want to believe. Even back in the day, I had this concept called the Ultimate DJ Boy Band with Laidback Luke. Some people think that was serious! We were sort of the pre-Swedish House Mafia – 4 DJs, 8 Decks, 4 Mixers, and we were just playing the most insane tracks from Backstreet Boys to underground Techno. We just smashed the whole idea of credibility. I think there is no such thing as being cool, just because you create underground techno instead of trance doesn’t make you cooler, what is cool? At the end of the day, you’re making music with your computer throwing around a couple of synths and loops. Compared to Oscar Wilde or Leonardo Da Vinci, is that cool? It’s very annoying to me when people classify things as being ‘cool’. We all know there is a classification – Hard style is not cool – Trance little bit less but not cool – Progressive House little bit less less not cool. Then it goes into House – semi cool, Minimal Techno – very cool! Just listen to music.

I had a bet with a friend I grew up with, he told me I didn’t understand Techno. So I told him I’ll try to make a Techno record under a different name. It ended up getting licensed to a Laurent Garnier compilation, which was his hero. I think music is a universal language – people try to classify all of it, it’s  so annoying. People going on YouTube, making all those comments, calling things out that tracks don’t sound the same – it’s confusing to the artists in this whole Digital Era.

Does that mean anything? 

It does and it doesn’t. It does when it’s your fan – it does affect me. It’s related to me and I don’t want to disappoint my fans. If it’s a hater, it’s not my problem. But that’s a fine line – a hater now can be your fan later on. There are shows where thousands of people are rocking out and there’s always that one guy sitting at the bar with a mustache that’s not moving or the guy who’s at the fence of a festival just staring at you while you’re on stage. I just wonder throughout the whole show and I can’t take my eyes off that one guy. It’s all mumble jumble – Why is that guy with the mustache not dancing? Why does he have a mustache, he’ll probably look better without. Is that his girlfriend or maybe it’s actually his mom. It’s completely random thoughts going in my mind. It just happens – it’s all part of disguising it and making it seem like you know what you’re doing.

What’s your favorite part about being on stage? How are your sets different?

Um..getting off stage. But jokes aside, it’s the connection with the people – I like to interact with people. Now I’m probably playing 90% of my own songs – which I think differentiates me from others out there. I think that’s what people come for – they want to hear your music. My goal is to go on a set and play 100% of my own music. Of course, I’m still proud of all the music I’ve made and sometimes I update it. I think that’s the great thing – you walk on stage, the guy before you banged out all the generic hits you can imagine, like his life depended on it at 11 o’clock in the evening. I think it’s great that we can just go in there and play our music. I would go and see that. I probably wouldn’t go see myself but that’s the way I play. I want play like I want to see you doing something, that’s why I try to interact a lot and introduce my records in a different way. I just want to give people their money’s worth rather than just pushing a bunch of buttons.

Another thing is that it’s not hard to be a DJ. You don’t really need to be able to do anything – if you can see the tempo on the screen and match it up. You pick a couple random tracks from a chart and figure out the key it’s in. I don’t think that’s the challenge – it’s really about playing and creating your music so that people can make the most of their time, money, and energy. I’m just surprised, when I look at certain shows, it just shocks me how little effort that’s put into what they’re doing and making so much money. It’s pretty shocking.

How did you come up with Don Diablo?

Well my real name is Don. I wanted it to be personal. I was always fascinated by movies and superheroes. For myself, I never could go up to a girl, walk on stage, wear certain outfits – that’s why I created Don Diablo, because he could do all of those things.  As the years progress, you become more comfortable with the role and come to the conclusion that maybe I’m not as useless or ugly as I think. I felt like Don Diablo was a character – the devil on my shoulder that gave me the confidence to be a little bit more than that guy sitting in the back of the classrooms with his ponytail.

How do you keep your mind clear and clean so you can continue your work? 

I just go see my mom every Monday. Whenever I’m touring in the United States or wherever, I go in between. I would fly, drive, go on a canoe. That’s what I need, once a week, I need to talk and watch maybe three or four episodes of “Walking Dead” together. You have to kind of remember the kid inside of you. For me, it’s going to the house I grew up in and talking to my mom. She’ll always be my mother and I’ll always be her son. We can talk about things we used to do, my dad, and it brings me back to that place where I can still be a kid and not worry about grown up things all the time. Then I reset and go deal with the world again and try not to scream at the world. It’s a collection of being screwed over this business. It’s all about egos and people wanting to be higher on the list, more money, and I don’t want to be about that. Sometimes I ask myself why I’m so stressed, and I’m not stressed for me or for my ego. I don’t need to be higher on the list or make more money. What I want is to reach out to more of my fans so I need to be on that stage to communicate my message to more people. It doesn’t matter how much you pay me for it – as long as I can buy a pair of shoes or drive a car. I’ve been driving my car for about 8 years and it has like 350,000 kilometers – it’s literally about to explode. My friends say I’m nuts but as long as it gets me from point A to point B. I just want to climb that ladder to reach more people with what I’m doing. I just try to do good, like the cancer research, that was different.

What made you want to do that?

I have two things that push for – a better world for children and a world without cancer. It was for kids with cancer so that makes complete sense. They came to me and they already knew that I do a lot for that research. It keeps me sane of knowing that I’m doing something that benefits to something better in this world. I feel like it’s just the start, I’m laying the foundation of hopefully doing bigger and better things. What is Hexagon? Hopefully in five to ten years, it’s a foundation that actually helps people across the world. That’s why I’m trying to get all the resources and contacts outside of the music world, that are accumulating right now. I just want to bring people together, connect with them, and try to do something bigger than just entertain people. People always ask me what was one of the highlights. For me, I think it was the “Artist Inside” was one of the most played songs at a funeral in my country. I felt like that was one of my proudest moments. I had a couple records that did well in clubs, entertaining people and having fun. But being a part of the end of someone’s life, I think that’s one of the highest honors you can get. I keep the hundreds and hundreds of heartfelt letters from kids to grown ups. One of them that really got me was from a boy, he emailed me saying that his father was going to pass away tonight and that he was going to play “Artist Inside” for him. The next day he emailed how the whole process went: what that song meant to him and his father, how he wasn’t able to express what he wanted to say, and what can get better than that? It’s the rarest feeling. So ever since I had that, everything has become so positive. Before this I had so much hate thrown at me everyday. Now I feel like there’s so much love coming towards me for some weird reason.

I think true happiness you have to find inside. It doesn’t come from success or anything material. The biggest struggle in life is not finding success, it’s finding happiness. Only a few people manage to find that and if you’re one of those, consider yourself extremely lucky.

Tell us more about your recent remix. 

One of the things I wanted to do, two or three years ago, was to remix artists that I respect a lot and the songs I like. They didn’t approach me so what can you do? You just have to wait and be patient. It took me like a lot of years and at some point you get that one track. Someone like Ed Sheeran gives you a shot and the track blows up, from there all the doors open. At one point, I just couldn’t do anymore remixes but the management from Madonna rang. Although it was a hard one because it was a ballad, I couldn’t say no. It was really cool when they sent an email saying Madonna thought my remix was one of the best she has ever heard. That was quite a moment. Then they put out an official CD single, a physical product which was cool, the original track and my song. I grew up as a kid listening to the physical products, screw all the digital stuff.

Last week was the first show ever where at a full set I was able to play my own tracks that I wanted to play, it was the first time ever so maybe tonight will be the same. But I do have a folder named “Emergency”. It happens, you have those shows where you’re not feeling 100% and you could be feeling miserable. But at the end of the day, you’re there and you have to be present.  That’s how I see it. I create music for myself and I DJ to entertain people and make sure they have a good time.

It’s a horrible feeling and you feel complete genetic because you’re just playing songs that anyone could have played to DJ. It makes you feel like everything you do completely useless. I’m just trying to avoid that as much as I can. I’m jealous of those guys who can just do it and brush it off. When that happens, I just lay in bed and stare at my ceiling, feeling miserable. It just gets in your system and it’s hard, but I try to fight it as much as I can. So I enjoy it when people come up to me and give me positive feedback, they ask to take pictures and if pictures of my face brings them joy then perfect. I can give you two!

I think that’s the difference once you experience all of that stuff. Where people discourage you everyday, tell you you’re not going to make it, and sometimes someone slamming the door in your face for god knows what reason. That makes you appreciate all of the success that you get later on and it makes you work harder like a beast.

What are some other records coming out except Madonna?

I’m working on a collab with a rather big name, I was actually just on the phone with him yesterday. He’s in the Top 10 so he does his thing, he’s quite a legend. I just want to do as much solo records as I can. I just want to do me for people who know my sound. Maybe next year I’ll do a few more collars and hopefully people will hear my signature sound in those tracks.

I think if you listen to all my records, you can hear how particular I am about the vocals. I feel that they are special rather than just a girl singing, but it has something unique in the melody. It’s always a special voice with a unique twist.

The next release on Hexagon is a remix I did for a UK band called The Wombats, it’s called “Give Me A Try”. It has more of that Indie and UK vibe.

Will you be staying focused more towards Hexagon?

Eventually, I’ll be more focused towards Hexagon. That’s the idea, but I don’t want to limit myself now. If I could get a record on a major label, I might do it. Right now, I’m really comfortable with Spinnin’ and they’ve become my family. They believe in me and I work well with them. I like when things are consistent. I don’t want to be one of those label jumping guys. I like it when you work with people who are passionate about your music, that have trust in you – it’s always going to be difficult in the beginning.

Both Spinnin’ and CID said no at first to “Starlight” and I thought that was my break through record.

You never know even when all the aspiring producers have seen your record. I had that track for about six months and I couldn’t even get it distributed. Nobody wanted to press it at the time. Fast forward one year, it almost sold a million copies. Going from a record that no one believes in to becoming one of the biggest selling records of the year; it’s possible. That’s what gets people discouraged, when their music isn’t released. I think it’s not in the quality, it’s in the packaging. Never lose faith in what you’re doing.

I’m very excited for the music video for “Universe”. It’s more about the heritage – it was shot in the area where I grew up. It’s actually in cooperation with the providence where I grew up in.

So they put me together with a guy that grew up very close to me, he has several Guinness World of Records. He’s very inspiring, he lives his life on the line. We made the music video together about achieving the dreams. It tells a little of my story and it goes into his story. It ends up when we go into this portal of the ‘Universe’ – showing that if you work hard your dreams will be fulfilled. That’s the underlying message.

The concept for this just happened – automatic. I wanted to be the one to tell his story.